Everyone has a film, perhaps a bunch of films, which hold images and ideas so potent that they sear through your eyeballs and brand your brain. The Vanishing is the type of film that belongs in that bracket. What’s remarkable is that it feels unremarkable. Like a puff adder, it feigns docility before devouring. The direction does not hold a flashy stamp or air of artifice. The characters have been considered thin and unappealing. It is a film that lacks explicit violence or jump-scares, yet it has routinely been considered one of the most chilling movies ever made. Why?
If you have seen it, you know why. Despite the film being over 30 years old, I will not state the main reason for its ability to unnerve. Even though its secret never feels that guarded. But what brings the chills in The Vanishing is not the what but the nature of the why. The film plays out in a matter of fact style that is as coldly brazen as the antagonist. It makes no qualms about spending time with a person who we should not engage with. Once the rug has been pulled, it is hard not to feel dirty or complacent.
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It is this aspect that makes The Vanishing such a succulent nightmare. A film which envelops itself with primal fears, yet is never too scared to take a viewer to truly uncomfortable places. The story is simple enough. During a trip to France, one half of a Dutch couple disappears without a trace. The disappearance takes its toll on Rex, remaining partner, who embarks on an obsessive 3-year search for his missing companion Saskia. Raymond was amongst the many travellers that day and has detailed knowledge of what occurred. When Rex finally meets Raymond, they take a journey to find out what happened to Saskia that fateful day.
Losing a loved one is a wish that most wouldn’t place on their worst enemy. Having them seemingly vanish into thin air only increases the pain. Rex details the hurt with a concise poignancy midway through the film: “Sometimes I imagine she’s alive. Somewhere far away. She’s very happy. And then, I have to make a choice. Either I let her go on living and never know, or I let her die and find out what happened. So… I let her die.”
The grief of not knowing exactly what happened to Saskia is the agonising allure that drives Rex throughout the film. A deep hunger for closure which feeds his obsession. It destroys relationships and leaves a man somehow trapped and crystallised within those last moments in time. There is a strong need for stories to be given an end. For narratives to finish. To lay nerves to rest. It is Rex’s meeting with Raymond that provides the key to ending the torment of both Rex and us as an audience. The film frustratingly drip-feeds clues as to Raymond’s role in the puzzle. We know something bad happened. The film’s shock is never in the overall, but with the particulars. With the film inviting us to engage with Raymond on such a broadly human level, its infamous climax is even more sickening.
Based on the Tim Krabbé novella The Golden Egg, the book’s title is also a metaphor for the film’s protagonists. The egg image becomes a visual motif by the way of car headlights. Part of the film’s brilliance lies in how its visuals are staged to convey meaning. A dark tunnel, two coins sitting side by side, a family photo. How the information gets presented is never showy, but the use of form to provide expression is profoundly effective. Director George Sluizer’s keen eye for detail also helps establish the film’s power.
Watching the tempers of the Dutch couple boil over in the film’s early stages provides stronger grounding to the impending situation. The preparation we observe in Raymond may be Bundy-styled red flags to true crime fans, yet it rings entirely true to the type of character Raymond is. The film’s unease is never in typical thriller-style trappings but in the establishing of something extraordinary within the mundane. Consider a small scene in which members of a family are requested to scream during a pleasant family dinner. What could easily be a game amongst family members, becomes a sequence of distress only after the film plays itself out.
Despite having a storied film career, director George Sluizer was mostly known for capturing lightning in a bottle with The Vanishing. Hollywood came calling and Sluizer remade the film for Fox, in an unsubtle exercise which cheerily butchered the key elements of the original. The remake becomes one of the best examples of Hollywood seemingly not understanding what they had in their hands. The 1993 version of the film delivers us a love-conquers-all conclusion which highlights mainstream cinema’s reluctance to avoid the dark in anything other than surface aesthetic. The entertainment business is about making people happy, even though Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland did not.
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Why did Sluizer do it? Perhaps for the same reason Gus Van Sant helmed a colourised, Vince Vaughan-starring Psycho: so that no one else could touch it. Unfortunately, despite a beautifully rich Blu-ray transfer, this disc holds no extras giving us further discussion in the remake or original’s creation. The visual look of the film is a strong update from the Nouveau Picture DVD release which may be knocking around on online marketplaces.
The lack of extras should not matter to fans of Euro-cinema or unsettling thrillers, however. One of the most tightly controlled thrillers is now available, remastered, to be endured afresh by a new audience. The film’s often spoken about the conclusion is still amongst the most frightening that this writer has had the joy to watch. Don’t google it. It’s something to be viewed cleanly. If readers have not seen The Vanishing and this review has you teetering, I will leave you with the words of the intrepid obsessive Rex: “The eternal uncertainty is the worst”. One should make a decision.
The Vanishing is out now on Blu-ray from Studiocanal.